Where R&D’s Design Philosophy is Taking Us

Recently, a lot has been said about the problems facing the current Standard formats, issues with Throne of Eldraine’s overall power level and design, and a number of similar topics. As usual I have thoughts on a number of these issues and thought it would be a nice change of pace from the usual Constructed metagame overviews I usually go over. For a general frame of reference for the primary points I’ll be covering, I’d recommend being familiar with these two articles first:

Standard and the “Doom Blade” problem

Play Design Lessons Learned

A whole lot has been said about the issues of the Play Design article and how the power level of Throne is not a healthy spot to be aiming for with Standard sets. This I agree with wholeheartedly, and am very disappointed to hear that we may not see a ‘depowered’ Standard for a while. While these types of formats can end up going poorly, where a handful of cards dictate the entire metagame, when they go well they present arguably some of the best kinds of Magic where neither player has to worry about getting snowballed early. 

For this Standard we’ll be seeing a lot of Throne for the near future, because even with the best cards from Throne of Eldraine banned, do you realize how many cheap engine cards and strong threats are left over? 

Edgewall Innkeeper

Edgewall Innkeeper is a one mana draw engine that requires no other investment

Lucky Clover

Lucky Clover turns slow 2-for-1’s into immediate 2-for-1’s and pays for itself mana wise after the first adventure copy

Questing Beast

Questing Beast is a card with so much extra text stapled on there you can tell they wanted a 100% playable catch-all threat against a bunch of niche interactions 

Fires of Invention

Fires of Invention would’ve been a six or seven mana card in a Core set just a few years ago and is absurdly powerful, with the type of resource burst R&D has shied away from these past few years

Gilded Goose

Gilded Goose is a better Birds of Paradise in a format where other food / artifact interactions are relevant

Wicked Wolf

Wicked Wolf makes all but the fastest aggro decks irrelevant 

Trail of CrumbsCauldron FamiliarWitch's Oven

Trail of Crumbs + Witch’s Oven + Cauldron Familiar is a fairer iteration of some of the best incremental draw engines in history

And again this is after the truly egregious cards were banned, and yes, Oko and Once Upon a Time were both egregious no matter how hard a job you have, sorry. That’s also ignoring the adventure cards as a whole which have OK to good rates as spell creatures. There’s at least a dozen or more cards in Throne that would be among top playables in the bulk of Standard formats. 

To me one of the most interesting examples of context really defining a card is Gilded Goose vs Llanowar Elves. Llanowar Elves has helped produce Pro Tour winning decks in formats where it wasn’t even close to the best thing to be doing. For a long time Llanowar Elves was a staple, then it wasn’t for a bit, came back and while it was good it was kept in check by a number of other factors (Goblin Chainwhirler being the most prevalent). Then Goose came out and suddenly thinkpieces about Llanowar Elves and their ilk being too unsafe to print came out which promptly garnered a lot of criticism. 

Well, Gilded Goose is Birds of Paradise 2.0 and should help reinforce how strong one mana accelerators are in general. I also think it helps illustrate the difference between the green accelerants, so a bit of a distinction can be made when talking about them. Llanowar Elves is not the same as Birds of Paradise being legal. One is far better in mono and two-color decks compared to Birds or Goose which generate all colors. In a format like this one with weak mana fixing this has a far bigger impact compared to if they were printed in a format with fetchlands and shocks, just as an example.

Additionally it underrates how good food and food generators actually ended up being, not only in the current format, but in formats that can take advantage of extra artifacts like Modern. This means you have a Bird where the weakness (only being able to use once before investing something to refresh it) can actually be a strength. Food can be cashed in for about half a card or better. Wicked Wolf, Trail of Crumbs, Elks, Cats, etc. If actual Llanowar Elves were legal instead of Gilded Goose, a deck like Gruul gets a massive boost, Oko decks take a hit and it reverberates everywhere else by affecting the total number of food generators.

Llanowar Elves and similar variants were often one of the biggest draws to green in many formats, not one of the many reasons to want to be in green. Now throw in the London Mulligan and Once Upon a Time and instead of Llanowar Elves draws in your deck happening around 40% of the time, you see it for what feels like 2/3rds to 3/4ths of your games. Just look at Pioneer and see what happens where you can build around this extra consistency in the one-drop accelerator (Editor’s Note: Once Upon a Time is now banned in Pioneer). If you built a format where this wasn’t the case, and you could only see it turn one between 30-40% of your games, then it would be a huge difference in how the deck itself would play and the power level of the strategy.

The aggro strategies and removal that can typically punish these early plays are borderline unplayable in current Standard. Anyone playing actual Shock in an attempt to take out a Gilded Goose in an Oko or Jund Cats deck, where Shock is basically worthless against the rest of the deck, is just not playing a real strategy. This isn’t a case where good answers make the one drop accelerants worse, this is a case of where the traditional counter-strategies to these decks are vastly weaker than their counterparts. Again we can look to Pioneer where these green strategies are competing directly with Mono Black Aggro and the latter is still performing at a high level. If we had more high powered proactive options, whether that be aggro or combo oriented, then perhaps Goose / Oko wouldn’t have been such a major problem.

Something to remember is that when a card has been around for a long period of time and considered a ‘staple’ it’s easy for the power level of a given card to be underappreciated. When you consider things staples then it’s natural to consider them the baseline of a format and then mentally construct the format around that power level. Llanowar Elves was good enough in a format with Cryptic Command, Thoughtseize, Bitterblossom, Tarmogoyf, 5c strategies and so on. It is completely reasonable to question the idea of reintroducing this type of card to Standard without some major checks and balances put in place and how much power you’re willing to sap from the color as a whole to allow for it.

Doom Blade

Green is now getting battered in the public view because it does everything a bit too well. I can easily see mentally shortcutting power level without directly evaluating the context of a format and how that ends up happening. Doom Blade is a good example of this, where the card is extremely strong in a bunch of formats and downright quaint in others. The baseline power of the card shouldn’t be taken for granted – Patrick Sullivan has ranted plenty of times about how cards invalidating a massive swath of text boxes isn’t a particularly interesting concept after the Nth time it happens.

Now, I actually agree with most of what the Doom Blade thread is getting at, having flexible answers is good and more importantly in formats with better threats, cheap answers are good. Smuggler’s Copter is a nice example right now of a card that’s very good in Pioneer (Editor’s Note: This one also just got banned) and is, in part, so good there because Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile don’t exist to punish it. Fatal Push still cleans it up nicely, but the idea is you can invest the two mana into the card then the damage lost by crewing and if it dies it’s not the end of the world. However if they don’t answer it, you get rewarded as the aggro player in a way that isn’t pure damage or pure resources (since you still end up card neutral). 

Now, switch over to Standard where previously you could run strictly better Hero’s Downfall as a  4-of and still be a dog to Simic Food unless you ran the same base core. Even with such a cheap fundamental answer it didn’t actually make up for the massive power disparity between decks / cards. You can see the same thing in other formats, where cards like Hogaak simply were too good even in a world where you could justify running maindeck Leyline of the Void. At some point the answers are a joke no matter how you cost them, or even worse, played in the best decks just to keep up.

However, there is another side of the coin, and a very important one at that. When this massive power disparity doesn’t exist then answers being too cheap and too flexible can be equally miserable for a format to have to deal with. “Dies to Doom Blade” has been a long-time meme for a reason – it was a valid concern for why you’d pay 4, 5 or even 6 mana for a card that got answered for 1B and netted you nothing. Fun fact – the Titan cycle was originally printed as an answer to cycles of big creatures being garbage because they didn’t really do anything before they died. This cycle also succeeded pretty well in that respect, with only Primeval Titan performing vastly above power level curve for the time. In fact, the Cavalier cycle could be seen as the spiritual successor to the Titan cycle. 

Something a former R&D member said to me once has resonated recently, seeing the most recent format. I’m paraphrasing here as it’s been years, but loosely it was – “There are millions of Magic players and the majority enjoy creature battles more than what amounts to resource wars”. This was backed up by the data they had, and yet people still continued to argue their particular viewpoint was the true one. In the end they’re trying to grow Magic and give the customers what they want, so what benefits did they get from this? Magic is about creatures.  You can state whatever your personal preference is, but we had periods when Magic is about creature combat and periods when Magic has been about other stuff, and Magic tends to do a lot better when it’s more about creature combat. 

This may also explain why planeswalkers have been getting so much traction. Besides being very popular cards they should, in theory, help keep the combat step relevant and reinforce the importance of creature combat. As stated in the play design article, one of the major failings of cards like Teferi and Oko has been their overreliance on players being able to effectively attack them down to keep them in check. But the concept of planeswalkers and creature combat both being popular aspects of Magic and reinforcing one another? Well, assuming you balance the levers right, that checks out. 

OK, so now balance that with including ‘the good answers’ and what gets reinforced more in general? Creatures or planeswalkers? If you go by what historically has held up as good and chose the latter, you’re correct. 

Another key point is that good answers can potentially be used more effectively by the best proactive decks and simply shut out everything else. Temur Energy used Negate better than any other deck in its respective Standard format and that effectively shut the door on a number of counter strategies. Mono Black Control used Thoughtseize more effectively than anything else in their respective formats and while it’s certainly a powerful option, I have to do a double take when I see people suggest this type of card default makes formats better.

The part I do agree with is that the line between answers and threats is blurring a bit too much, and when you throw in higher power level sets it’s actively making Standard harder to balance and seeping into older formats as well. My takeaway from the last few years of Standard isn’t that the answers are too weak – it’s that the threats feel too good for what they are and the best answers magnify the power of the threats or are the threats themselves. Oko wasn’t too good because it could only answer the opponents stuff or generate resources, it was because it did both. People wouldn’t complain nearly as much about Teferi or Narset if they were just a curse effect and didn’t net cards in the process. If you had to make a choice whether to use them as disruption or resource development it’d completely change their power balance. 

Without knowing what restrictions or the exact process R&D and Play Design are under I’m not going to pretend to offer any real solutions here. Rather, this is just my general feedback on what I’ve seen so far. What about you though? How do you feel about any of the topics covered above? Are answers too weak? Has the needle moved too far in terms of power creep? Sound off in the comments because I’m interested in what a larger cross section of the community thinks. 

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